The evolution of the camera has allowed war photographers to create portraits that are capable of evoking the most minute emotions people have to offer. During the civil, and Vietnam war photographers were able to use this skill in order to sway public opinion on the wars. Even though a photo is worth 1000 words, photographers knew that just one photograph would not be enough to completely arrogate the public’s support of war. Instead they believed that a complete bombardment of gruesome imagery, which portrayed death, heartless killings, and absolute brutality, would be able to jumpstart public contest.
Two photographs that were successfully accomplish this task are Napalm Girl by Nick Ut, and The Execution of a Vietcong Guerilla by Eddie Adams. The near immortality of these photos speaks to photography’s effectiveness and power. Images from these photographers created a climax for American viewers. Photography burst onto the scene as a new medium during the civil war in the 1860’s. Photography was still in its earliest stages and, during this time, cameras were very bulky and unpleasant to carry around. The camera had an inability to take quick images. Each photo required an elongated shutter speed and have to be instantly developed on a metal plate in a large mobile darkroom. These time consuming requirements limited the material a photographer was able to capture. Instead of capturing shots of the gruesome combat that the public was ignorant to, photographer were only able to capture pre and post-war photos of soldiers, buildings and landscapes. In order to sway public opinion, photographer would need a better camera.
Along with the development of the camera photographers were better equipped to explore the battlefield. The powerful impact of photography was realized by the United States government during World War I. Instead of letting the medium flow free and uncontrolled, they decided to place wartime photographers and their images under strict suppression and constraint. Photographers were forced to follow a set of rules set by the U.S. government: wounded soldiers were only able to be photographed if receiving attention from a medic or comrade, each soldier had to be thought to be alive, and photographs of dead soldiers were absolutely proscribed. The public relations branch of the United States War Department are the spearheaders of the ban. The department defended this suppressive tactic by saying “such pictures caused needless anxiety to those whose friends and relatives were at the front, and tended to foster the anti-war spirit that was always so persistently cultivated by the enemy”.The War Department knew that if photographers exposed the gruesomeness of war, the public would start to withdraw their support. Fortunately for photographers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with the U.S. War Department, rectified the ban on photography during World War II.
The photographs were hard to absorb for news corporations and the public they broadcasted to, but the images did shape public opinion. However, the opinion was different than what was expected. The public “did not see only the loss; they saw instead, as directed, the death of men fighting for ‘freedom.’ And, to them, the fact that men had died for it made freedom only that more precious, that more essential, that more urgent”. Instead the public wanting to pull out of the war effort, they developed an overwhelming sense of patriotism. Other photographs that were able to change public opinion are Napalm Girl by Nick Ut, and The Execution of a Vietcong Guerilla by Eddie Adams. Each of these photographs were taken during the Vietnam War. Napalm Girl was a picture of a little girl, along with other children, frantically running from soldiers whilst their village blazzed in the background. The American people began to question why their troops were still in Vietnam. They were told by President Richard Nixon, “that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam, and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.” The public felt deceived.
The second photo, Execution of a Vietcong Guerilla, depicted a South Vietnamese police chief frozen in time as he was getting ready to shoot a cuffed Viet Cong prisoner in the head. After an NBC film aired in the United States, which exploited the incident, the American people demonstrated their discontent with the war through a series of massive demonstrations. They were so perturbed by the incident because it exemplified the absolute brutality of war: it exemplified a brutality that could be avoided by resisting to fight. The photographs alone did not change the war, but the succession of images definitely stripped the public’s opinion away from it. Every war challenges human beings capability to control miniscule emotions that arise during times of discomfort. Photojournalist like Nick Ut, who photographed Napalm Girl, and Eddie Adams, who photographed The Execution of a Vietcong Guerilla, played upon that very discomfort with their photographic skill. Every photograph that exemplified a gruesome act created a stir of emotions in the people that saw it. However, these images wouldn’t have been possible without the evolution of the camera. Susan Sontag, a highly respected American writer, filmmaker, and political activist said “a photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude”. The camera’s advancement provided that very context to be discussed. Photographers were able to capture more gut wrenching photos during the Vietnam War in 1955 than they were in the Civil War of 1861 because they possessed better equipment.
Bibliography: Berger, Sara, Miles Weinrib, and Tessa Ramirez-Keough. ‘War Images: ‘Napalm Girl’.’ Confluence. Accessed April 10, 2018. http://confluence.gallatin.nyu.edu/sections/research/war-images-napalm-girl.Berger, Sara, Miles Weinrib, and Tessa Ramirez-Keough. ‘War Images: ‘Napalm Girl’.’ Confluence. Accessed April 10, 2018. http://confluence.gallatin.nyu.edu/sections/research/war-images-napalm-girl.Berger, Sara, Miles Weinrib, and Tessa Ramirez-Keough. ‘War Images: ‘Napalm Girl’.’ Confluence. Accessed April 10, 2018. http://confluence.gallatin.nyu.edu/sections/research/war-images-napalm-girl.Moeller, Susan D. Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat. New York: Basic Books, 1989.Selwyn-Holmes, Alex. ‘The Execution of A Vietcong Guerilla.’ Iconic Photos. April 05, 2010. Accessed April 10, 2018. https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/the-execution-of-a-vietcong-guerilla/.Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 2010.Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
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